He looked fairly comfortable from the start Saturday, at least for a rookie playing before a crowd of 76,881.

Zack Darlington has the "it" factor that's so important for quarterbacks.

Thing is, Darlington has been feeling comfortable in Nebraska's new offense since mid-March.

"The week before spring break (March 22-29) was kind of when I made the jump, when my reps went up," Darlington said. "I got moved from the White team to the Red team and I was behind (starter) Tommy Armstrong.

"I kind of shocked myself. I mean, I guess I didn't think it would happen that fast."

Bear in mind, Darlington was perceived as the No. 5 quarterback on the depth chart entering spring practice March 7.

Where is he coming out of spring practice?

"That's up to Coach (Danny) Langsdorf," said Darlington, referring to the Huskers' offensive coordinator. "Who really knows? I mean, this was our first real test. We never really had any live scrimmages this spring. The quarterbacks were never 'live.' I guess after this week we'll meet with Coach (Mike) Riley, and I'm sure we'll find out then."

Riley, the new boss, said he has a pecking order in mind, but wasn't tipping his hand.

It's safe to say this is still Tommy Armstrong's show. Nothing we saw or heard suggested otherwise. The junior has adapted well to an entirely different scheme, his coaches say. But a pair of redshirt freshmen, Darlington and AJ Bush, have shown enough this spring to keep Armstrong on his toes throughout the summer and into preseason camp.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Bush has been the flavor of the spring in media circles. For good reason.

But Darlington was the flavor of the Red-White Spring Game, completing 7 of 11 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. He had a nifty 19-yard run on a zone-read play that immediately preceded a 29-yard touchdown pass to Jamal Turner.

Langsdorf said evaluation of the QBs continues.

"We're not going to just evaluate it off today," he said. "We're going to take the whole spring and make sure we make a good decision."

Bottom line, "There's a good battle for that backup spot."

Darlington's prowess as a game manager and overall grasp of the position — his dad's a high school coach — might give him an edge over Bush. Bush obviously has better physical tools.

Meanwhile, Johnny Stanton was MIA for most of Saturday, finally entering the scrimmage in the fourth quarter. He wears No. 5, and that might be his depth-chart standing.

As for the day in general, Riley seemed pleased. Injuries were minimal. There was decent execution overall. Wonderful weather. A great day to evaluate a roster of players he's still getting to know.

There was a Bill Callahan-esque amount of passing — 68 throws versus 55 runs. In general, Riley and Langsdorf thought the passing game was "OK."

"I thought we missed some throws down the middle on the post (route) and the seam," Langsdorf said. He would like the quarterbacks to use  check-down options more often. There were a few too many drops. A few picks. Pretty standard stuff for spring.

Armstrong, 16-5 as Nebraska's starter, was 6-for-12 passing for 77 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown to the great De'Mornay Pierson-El. Armstrong had a solid day. He even had a decent down-field block on Terrell Newby's 24-yard first-quarter run.

"The thing that never wavered about Tommy — and that is the separator for him as I see it right now — is his confidence," Riley said. "He's a confident guy. He plays like it. If something doesn't go exactly right, he doesn't blink."

Bush (12-for-22, 124 yards) was shaky early, but settled down. He ended up with two interceptions and could've had two other throws picked off. Riley detected nervousness.

"But I think we all saw glimpses of what could be," the coach said.

As for Stanton, Riley cautioned to avoid reading too much into his lack of playing time. 

"We had a hard job in some ways in trying to get that many quarterbacks ready enough to get a chance to play in a spring game," the coach said. "It's sometimes a very small difference in who gets to play first."

Darlington can relate to being buried on the depth chart.

"You have to have somewhat of a chip on your shoulder," he said. "If you don't go in and you're not motivated every day, you're not always going to get the job done.

"When I saw the depth chart (early in spring practice), it started a fire in me."

Yes, he sounds like a coach's son. He asks the coaches all the right questions. He has a good feel for the game. A quick release. He might be an excellent starting quarterback someday. Just not right now. This is Armstrong's show, until further notice.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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